There’s a moment in the riveting documentary Jagged where Lisa Worden, the one-time program director of influential Los Angeles radio station KROQ, describes the first time she heard Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know,” the “You’re So Vain” of the ’90s. Station employees tended to listen to music at top volume, she said, and the song was playing at the excited urging of Guy Oseary, who had just signed Morissette to Madonna’s label, Maverick Records.
Jagged then cuts to the song’s music video—featuring a long-haired, moody Morissette in a desert locale and then looking like a whirling dervish as she fronts a band—and allows the music to simmer and build up through the explosive first chorus. Any plot advancement or commentary pauses; instead, Morissette’s music grabs the spotlight and commands our attention.
It’s a rather excellent and true-to-life replication of how stunning it felt to hear “You Oughta Know” booming out of speakers back in 1995, and a welcome reminder of Morissette’s revelatory presence. Jagged, the second film released from the Music Box documentary series Bill Simmons is producing for HBO, does an admirable job capturing the musician’s rise to fame. Using archival concert and news footage, as well as vintage and new interviews, the film focuses on the creation and subsequent success of the multi-multi-multi-platinum 1995 debut album, Jagged Little Pill. The documentary ends up both a delightful ’90s time capsule and a sharp analysis of the social and cultural forces that shaped Morissette’s career—for better and worse.
Like many documentaries, Jagged adds positive supporting interviews from music industry executives, journalists, and collaborators; these include her Jagged Little Pill producer/co-writer Glen Ballard, Dogma director Kevin Smith and Garbage’s Shirley Manson. Ballard and Manson are especially insightful, with the former describing Morissette’s mindset after moving to Los Angeles in the early ’90s, her career as a teen pop idol in Canada over thanks to being dropped by her record label: “She was looking for someone to be an artist with.”
Smartly, director Alison Klayman amplifies this artistry by foregrounding Morissette’s voice and music. She incorporates plenty of inspiring footage filmed on the Jagged Little Pill tour that shows off the singer’s mesmerizing, cathartic stage charisma. Morissette herself also sits for frank and perceptive interviews about her life, music, and creative process. “His big question was, ‘Who are you? What do you want to write about?’ What’s going on for you?’” Morissette said of Ballard as they started working together. “And what a lovely prompt. Nobody’s asked me that—ever.” This nurturing creative environment led to Jagged Little Pill, a record that captured the complicated experience of being a strong young woman coming into her own: finding pockets of joy, mirth and ecstasy while processing trauma, recovering from negative relationships and pushing back against oppressive, male-driven systems.
The idea of power—who possesses it, who wields it responsibly, who abuses it—is one of Jagged’s compelling (if sobering) themes. Early on, it focuses on Morissette’s pre-Jagged Little Pill life in Canada, including a stint on the cult Nickelodeon TV show You Can’t Do That On Television and her career as an ’80s teen pop phenom. Like many child stars, she dealt with adults acting inappropriately—she recalls being hit on starting at around age 15—and developed an eating disorder after having her weight scrutinized. The matter-of-fact way Morissette describes being deprived of food is horrifying; at one point, she recalls sneak-eating cheese slices on a video shoot and being chided the next morning for the supposed indiscretion.
Much later, Jagged addresses the debauched and piggish road behavior of her Jagged Little Pill-era touring band, which included future Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and current Jane’s Addiction bassist Chris Chaney. While the musicians were protective of Alanis, they didn’t necessarily always extend the same respect to her fans. In modern interviews, the two men confessed that the band had a dedicated room in venues for women who had backstage passes doled out by a guitar tech. “The hypocrisy of what her music and message was—and here you have us, like, scoundrels trying to get laid,” Chaney said. Morissette was unsurprisingly not happy when she found out about their callous shenanigans.
“It did feel disrespectful to me,” Morisette says. “Some of the behavior just didn’t match my mission or my value system at all. But I’d only grown up around men. So I just thought, ‘Okay, well, are you going to replace them with five other men that are going to do the exact same thing—and it won’t sound as great?’”
If anything, these enraging moments amplify why her music was so important—not just to the world at large, but also for her own comfort and solace. In Jagged, Morissette says as much: “The point in my writing these songs—I was not writing to punish I was writing to express and get it out of my body, because I didn’t want to get sick.” What follows soon after is a section once again referencing her teenage popstar days: Morissette broadly discusses having what she later came to understand was nonconsensual sexual encounters—and says nobody listened to her when she tried to tell them what happened. “Women don’t wait,” she says, addressing people who question why women don’t report sexual assaults right away. “Culture doesn’t listen.” It’s both heartbreaking and infuriating that what she describes is so familiar.
Jagged cuts deep when unpacking the hypocrisy and obstacles Morissette faced while making her voice heard. Her honest songwriting and unfettered stage presence inspired legions of young women—yet Jagged Little Pill was initially dismissed by labels for being “too in-your-face, too emotional.” Radio stations still wouldn’t play two songs in a row by female artists, and men dominated the journalistic writing around Morissette’s music and persona.
To underline this point, Jagged specifically highlights press quotes from the time that emphasize Morissette’s so-called anger, hold her pop music background against her, or insinuate that Glen Ballard was the real songwriting star. “It’s still an instinct to diminish any woman who isn’t willing to participate in the little box that’s been carved out for her in society,” Shirley Manson so succinctly puts it in the film.
As Jagged premiered at TIFF, Morissette distanced herself from the documentary, releasing a statement via her management saying the film “includes implications and facts that are simply not true” and noting, “While there is beauty and some elements of accuracy in this/my story to be sure—I ultimately won’t be supporting someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell.” It remains unclear what details are incorrect, leaving plenty of question marks as to what happened after filming wrapped.
Jagged does make it crystal clear that Morissette’s narrative is far more complex than many gave it credit for at the time. More important, the film argues successfully that she’s one of the most important songwriters of the last few decades, in no small part because she remains committed to cultivating her craft.
In fact, Jagged ends with Morissette performing a wisdom-packed new song, “Ablaze,” that’s directed toward her children. Jagged Little Pill cemented Morissette’s stardom, but she’s never forgotten that staying true to her inner self and vision remains her best creative compass. “There were a lot of women at that time,” Manson says about the ’90s, and name-checks Fiona Apple, Missy Elliott, and Courtney Love. “There were so many of us. But Alanis proved to the world—and the music business—that we were viable.”